The act of eating is such a common daily activity that we typically don’t give it much thought. Yet it is such an integral part of being human and of human relationships too. Throughout human history, when we “break bread” together, there is a special kind of intimacy involved in this act that deepens our social ties to one another.
With North Americans spending increasingly more time at work, these social ties are more important than ever at the workplace. That being said, can eating together strengthen relationships with our co-workers and foster a healthier team environment? And is communal dining (a.k.a. commensality if you want to be fancy) something an organization can benefit from encouraging?
Researchers from Cornell University say, “yes, yes, and yes” to the above. In a 2015 study, researchers led by Kevin Kniffen, found a positive correlation between eating together and work team performance among a group of professional firefighters at 13 firehouses in a large U.S. city. They chose firehouses as a prototypical example for the relevance of workplace eating and discovered that many of the behaviours and dynamics can be generally applied to other contemporary professional workplaces as well.
This study suggests that an effective method for team building can be as surprisingly simple as encouraging co-workers to eat together.
Why is eating together such a valuable mechanism for enhancing organizational performance? There are three major reasons…
1) It facilitates greater collaboration
Collaboration is at the heart of an effective team. And commensality (eating together) provides the perfect opportunity to collaborate and share ideas among co-workers who might not otherwise see or talk to each other during the course of the workday. In this way, a cafeteria or communal eating area can purposely act like a hub for serendipitous encounters (or “collisions” as space managers and office designers call it) to increase collaboration.
2) It helps bond people together
When we eat together, it is a social activity that enables us to get to know one another. It helps us bond and view each other as more than just co-workers. Whether or not we actually share a meal, the simple act of dining together encourages intimacy that can lead to stronger relationships.
We don’t necessarily have to be talking about anything work-related either for it to benefit team performance. Researchers discovered that co-workers are more likely to cooperate with each other even after just several minutes of “idle” chit chat.
Commensality can also minimize hierarchies and facilitate stronger relationships between higher-ranking supervisors and other team members. As funny as it might seem, dining with your manager and vice versa makes them more human in your eyes and encourages a perceptual shift to a non-hierarchical (or collective) work environment. The cafeteria can function as an informal place that enables more openness and conversation.
3) It fosters greater commitment
Tied to the strengthening of relationships, eating together also helps grow a sense of belonging to something greater than oneself. This sense of belonging is fundamental to building commitment to the team. When a person has a greater feeling of commitment to the team and its members, they’re more likely to display proactive efforts to positively impact the team and to go above and beyond the call of duty to do good for their co-workers.
While the Cornell researchers did point to the life-and-death nature of firefighting that encourages a high degree of bonding and team commitment, they observed that the informal tradition of eating together is a significant part of the cultural fabric that helps firehouses operate smoothly and successfully. And they concluded that workplace commensality helps teams of all types (not just firefighters) to perform better.
Things can be taken too far though
There are a few potential downsides to communal eating in the workplace. The first and most harmful is insularity. When team members only eat and socialize with each other, they risk disconnecting themselves from the rest of the organization or the outside world. Going hand-in-hand with this is creating a team that’s so insular and tight-knit to the point where it can be intimidating for newcomers to try and join. If taken too far, it can also foster cliquish mealtime behaviours, like in a high school cafeteria, where certain people are ostracized and there are feelings of pressure to conform. The exact opposite of a collective and collaborative environment.
However, in most cases, there are many more benefits than there are potential drawbacks to supporting communal workplace dining.
Another point the researchers mention is that eating together in and of itself shouldn’t be expected to unilaterally create cooperation or enhance performance among co-workers. Rather, it should be looked at as an essential approach to boosting team performance.
Using existing resources
Cafeterias and dining spaces are typically existing resources for a company, so why not look at ways of leveraging these spaces and people’s natural need to eat in order to bring co-workers together for improved team performance? This can be a much simpler (and less costly) strategy versus the usual team-building activities, like “ropes”-based athletic activities (or some other misguided attempts at creating intimacy among employees).
An organization can’t enforce or regulate workplace eating, but they can nudge employees toward this type of behaviour by providing a space (i.e. a cafeteria or communal eating area with the necessary equipment, like a fridge, microwave, plates, utensils, etc.) that’s nice (i.e. clean and is a place where you’d actually want to eat and spend time with others) and a culture that supports taking a lunch break in order to eat together. And, if it’s financially feasible, supporting employer-sponsored cafeterias (where the food is free to the employees or offered at a reduced price through employer subsidizing) to further encourage commensality. Although, the merits of this specific approach have a less direct measurable return on investment in terms of team performance.
Anecdotally-speaking, the findings from this study ring true from my own experiences at various companies. I worked at a few places where communal eating wasn’t the cultural norm. Instead, most of us ate isolated at our desk, usually working through the lunch break while taking bites of food in between emails and writing reports. I thought deadlines were always looming, so there was no time to take a break. Also, I believed that if my employer saw me taking a lunch break, they’d assume I have the capacity to take on more work/I’m not that busy. Plus, the lunchrooms were either tiny or not designed for those “serendipitous encounters”. Looking back, I can see how this contributed to me lacking a sense of belonging and in some ways dissatisfaction with those work environments.
Admittedly, from outside observations, taking time to dine together might seem like it’s wasted time (as I once believed too), but the evidence suggests that it ultimately carries significant importance for organizational performance.
And employers can be proactive in leading by example to establish an organizational norm of taking an uninterrupted break to dine together. This just makes good business sense.
Do you or have you ever worked at a place where eating together is a tradition? Do you think it helps create a stronger team or not? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.
References (and my many thanks to):
Kevin M. Kniffin, Brian Wansink, Carol M. Devine & Jeffery Sobal (2015)
"Eating Together at the Firehouse: How Workplace Commensality Relates to the Performance of
Firefighters", Human Performance, 28:4, 281-306, https://doi.org/10.1080/08959285.2015.1021049
“Team Building in the Cafeteria.” Harvard Business Review, December 2015, https://hbr.org/2015/12/team-building-in-the-cafeteria
Blog post image courtesy of: “lunch” by Alice Cerconi from the Noun Project